Caucus focuses on joint cause

Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak legislators form unified voice to help boroughs

Posted: Monday, January 27, 2003

Two members of the Alaska Senate have joined with four colleagues from the House to form what they hope will be a strong and unified voice for the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak.

"The two boroughs were joined politically with reapportionment and the six legislators representing them have agreed to join a caucus for our mutual benefit," Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said in a press release Friday.

The caucus members include Wagoner, as well as Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Soldotna, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Rep. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

"If we stick together, we are one-tenth of the total of the House and Senate," Chenault said in an interview Friday.

Individually, he said, lawmakers carry less weight.

"But as a group, we may be able to sway things of interest to our constituents," he said.

In the press release, Chenault said because commercial fishing is an important economic contributor to both the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Borough, it made sense for the group to work together to help the industry.

"Fisheries is one area where, obviously, we are together," said Seaton from his office Friday. "Our ports might see some benefits of seeing more people pulling together."

Stevens also said the two regions have common interests, including education.

"All in all, it is very practical to join together," Austerman said. "It provides a stronger presence for all of us."

Wagoner said the caucus will take up a variety of issues, but foremost would be education. He said speaking as a caucus should give the area more voice.

"This is the first time on a socioeconomic scale that the peninsula has been aligned with another community that has the same interests," he said.

Members of the 2K caucus also reacted to Gov. Frank Murkowski's state of the state address Thursday evening. In it, Murkowski promised to make good his campaign promise to push resource development as a way to lift the state out of its economic morass, while putting more controls on state spending.

The governor also said he would make the Department of Natural Resources the lead agency on permitting, including moving the permitting functions of the Department of Fish and Game's habitat division to DNR. He also said he would dump the Division of Governmental Coordination. The moves were meant to streamline the permitting process, Murkowski said.

Those moves, however, drew criticism from environmentalists who are concerned that habitat protection may get less attention in the race to develop resources and open new areas of Alaska with roads.

But Kenai Peninsula legislators appeared to have given the governor the benefit of the doubt and said they are willing to wait to see how it all pans out.

The permitting process has to protect habitat, said Seaton, a commercial fisher.

"If DNR is applying the regulations well, it should be just fine. I'm sure Fish and Game is still going to have their input," he said, adding that putting all permit-handling under one agency could be more efficient.

Wagoner said he was happy with Murkowski's address, saying the new governor was "right on" with some of his points, though he did say the governor had not provided a lot of detail about those points.

On the DNR move, Wagoner said he wants to see how it all shakes out, but he's behind the permit streamlining effort.

"Environmentalists are going to scream to high heaven," he said. "No one wants to see the environment harmed, and I don't think that this will cause that to happen. But the permitting process is used by a minority of people to stall development in the state of Alaska."

Wagoner said that during his first week, he's had the opportunity to meet some of the governor's new appointees and came away generally impressed that they were "reasonable and efficient."

"I think we will start looking at efficiencies in jobs and analyze jobs over the next couple of years and say, 'What does this job do for Alaska and its citizens and do we need it?' If it isn't needed, let's get rid of it," Wagoner said.

Murkowski said he wanted to evaluate proposals for fundamental change in the Alaska Permanent Fund. He did not offer much in the way of details.

Chenault said he interpreted it to mean that the governor wanted to look at how much the state's fund spends for the work of Outside managers -- companies that invest and manage fund assets for the state.

Chenault also likes Murkow-ski's idea for getting the corporations in which the fund is invested to invest in the state of Alaska.

"I don't think there is any intentions of tapping the fund or changing the way it is managed now, but who manages it, maybe," Chenault said.

"I don't think he's driving at changing management," Seaton said. "We are investing a lot of money with these folks and we'd like to see more of those corporations investing in Alaska."

Wagoner said millions are spent on Outside fund managers and maybe some of that money ought to come back to Alaska through such things as charitable donations, much as corporations in Alaska do.

"If some of that money doesn't come back, maybe we should look at managers here in the state of Alaska," he said.

According to the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., the fund spent $30 million for management services last year. The fund is invested in equities, fixed-income securities and real estate.

There are some 14 management firms handling domestic equities, four listed as international managers and two listed as global managers of equities.

The corporation staff manages about 80 percent of the fund that is invested in fixed-income securities. Four Outside companies manage the rest.

There are eight firms handling real estate investments.

Wolf did not return a call from the Clarion seeking reaction to Murkowski's address and the new 2K caucus.

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